Making Black History on the Supreme Court | Sojourners

Making Black History on the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., Jan. 26, 2022. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Black History Month feels particularly important this year. Given widespread efforts to erase or whitewash parts of U.S. history — as school board meetings across the country become battlegrounds over what and how the next generation will be taught that history — Black History Month serves as a corrective to ensure our understanding of history includes the good, the bad, and even the ugliest parts. While the history of Black people in the United States should be studied year-round, February — which every president since Gerald Ford has proclaimed as Black History Month — also presents a critical opportunity to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans proactively, honestly, and specifically.

It’s fitting, then, that we enter Black History Month in the context of President Joe Biden’s commitment to appoint a Black woman to a Supreme Court seat, a campaign promise Biden doubled down on after Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement. If confirmed, Biden’s pick would become the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, a historic milestone that is long overdue. While we’ve seen the predictable attacks from some voices on the Right, it’s important to point out that having a Black woman on the Supreme Court will have profound moral and practical significance to the United States. Representation matters, and when people become historic “firsts” to occupy prominent positions in society, it changes what future generations of children see as possible. Drawing upon my own life journey, it was deeply motivating to see my mother, Saundra Taylor, become the first African American woman to serve as the vice president of student affairs at both Western Washington University and the University of Arizona. Her trailblazing example helped to expand my own sense of what was possible and taught me to never be confined by the biases or expectations of others.

A Black woman on the Supreme Court will bring important experience to the country’s highest bench, experience that matters because of the myriad ways the U.S. criminal justice system continues to disproportionately punish and criminalize Black people. One of the judges who is said to be a top contender for the appointment, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, has an uncle who was sentenced to life in prison under a “three strikes” law during the war-on-drugs era of the 1980s. Jackson and each of the other frontrunners are highly qualified candidates who would both shatter a glass ceiling and strengthen the court’s commitment to equal justice under the law. 

People’s lived experiences are strongly affected by the communities in which they are raised and by how those communities treat people across lines of difference. Before the Senate's recent failure to pass voting rights legislation, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) spoke powerfully about the disparate reality that people of color face in the United States, specifically in longer lines to cast their vote:

The more fundamental question is ‘Why is the line so long in the first place?’… For some Americans this is not your experience, but it is the experience of so many of your fellow Americans.

If every American more fully understood Black communities’ longstanding experiences and struggles with voting rights, we could better galvanize the urgency and political will that is needed. This year’s Black History Month presents a chance to acknowledge the full history of Black people in the United States and advance both racial healing and justice; we can do this by urging lawmakers to bring H.R. 40 to the floor of the House and supporting H.R. 17, which urges the establishment of a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. H.R. 40 would create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans; its passage would mark the first time a bill on reparations for slavery passed one of the houses of Congress, an important step in honoring the original purpose behind Black History Month.

James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until is faced.” Remembering is important, and shining a brighter spotlight on Black history can catalyze a deeper commitment to racial justice. Time and time again, Isaiah and other prophets spoke to the power of memory and the perils of ignoring the past. The failure of collective memory imprisons us in amnesia and mistruth, prolonging our painful divisions. At its best, Black History Month enables us to better understand how racism shows up in harmful attitudes, systems, and structures. It also reminds us to celebrate the many ways in which Black history is being made every day. By leaning into Black History Month, we can revitalize a racial justice awakening that has seemingly been forestalled since the summer of 2020.

One of my heroes, the late Rep. John Lewis, said, “Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe of many lifetimes, and each of us in every generation must do our part.” Black History Month provides all of us an opportunity to better face our nation’s history so that we can more courageously and effectively do our part to change the trajectory of that history.